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Category Archives: teach

The Burgess Boys- Elizabeth Strout’s New Novel


March, 2013 release, Random House

March, 2013 release, Random House

The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s latest book and is to be released in March. I just finished reading an advanced copy and am telling you now—go order it.

Strout is masterful at creating characters that are very real. I read this book in a day because I couldn’t put it down. I needed to see what happened to these prople, and I wanted to keep reading her skillfully crafted sentences. Both the product and the process are successful.

You can tell that Strout likes words—and is particular about the words she uses and how she places them. It’s an art, and I’m drawn to her skill set. The Burgess Boys is one of those books that I re-read single sentences multiple times, just to hear them again in my head and marvel at the “wordsmithing”.

She captures the small details that create monumental tension and dysfunction, especially within families. Family members and loved ones are stung in the banter and deceptions of the day. We feel the thorns and, with time, enjoy the roses. The words convey the conflict as well as the family bonds that keep it all together for better or worse.

We see the admirably strong bonds that exist amongst siblings, even when deception, dysfunction and enabling are strong deterrents to the relationships. This tension throughout the novel is engaging and seductive. Stout revels the cost of errors and bad judgment between couples; infidelity is just one variety of estrangement. Do people enter relationships only to get what they need? And what are the consequences of that motivation?

Many times during the course of this novel, characters have to assess whether the pain caused by “loved ones” is worth tolerating. We get examples of likeable characters who put up with unacceptable toxic behavior for years… and others who cut the cord and seek refuge elsewhere. There’s a lot more tolerating than I’m capable of, but I like how Strout shows the options and the consequences. I do find it ironic that more tolerance and latitude is shown toward blood relatives than any other group, even when it is almost fatal. Outsiders are given no leeway before judgment is called.

The author focuses not only on family, but the family in the larger sense: community. What happens when newcomers are only seen as outsiders? She plays with this theme in a variety of ways. Who gains acceptance and who is un-welcomed in a family or in a town. The immigrants from Somalia provide a means to explore prejudice, discrimination, fear and the consequences of clicking one’s emotional “delete button” before knowing a person. Likewise class-ism rears its head; the affluent characters and less affluent ones are seldom on equal or welcomed footing. There is a lack of connection and understanding that is the root of many problems these players encounter. Stout isn’t preachy, she’s an astute observer of human behavior; the reader gets to draw conclusions. It’s all very real.

There is a rhythm, momentum and chemistry to this novel that is constant and captivating. As a reader, I care about the characters and connect to many while staying equally involved with the plot and totally celebrate the writer’s style. What more could I ask for?

Know That Kid ASAP

As a teacher, when the college semester is limited to 25 classes or the middle/high school marking period is ten to twelve weeks, I found it crucial to learn as much as I could about each student as early as possible. Here are some strategies that I used for all ages.

  1. Name That Face Before classes begin, review class lists, get student photos to be able to match the face with the name. Have index cards and markers so each student makes a name card to place on his/her desk; that facilitates you learning names and the students learning each other’s as well.
  2. Intro Letter and Task Also before classes begin, send a short, pleasant letter/e-mail to each student introducing yourself, reviewing the agenda for the first couple of days and asking them to collect a small number of items for a local homeless shelter (3 toothbrushes or 3 bars of soap or 3 pairs of athletic socks). Tell them to be prepared to discuss how they managed to get these items. This task serves as an icebreaker and gives insight about each student solved the problem of procuring the goods.
  3. The Questionnaire During the first class, I hand out a questionnaire that is somewhat lengthy. It’s due at the beginning of the next class. I ask what they liked best and least about English class. Also, what do they think is important for me to know about them in order to better teach them? What books have they read recently? What do they think makes a person a “good reader”? What do they think makes a student a “good writer”? I ask them to tell a little about the best paper they ever wrote. What is unique about their style of learning that would be helpful for me to know? What do they want to be doing in four years? What makes them happy? What scares them? They are told to write in complete sentences and answer each question fully.

And lastly, most importantly, what questions do they have for me… and I leave a large space for them to write as many questions as they want. I promise to answer their questions promptly. I pour over the surveys once they’re submitted and make notes in my grade book regarding anything I can glean from the student’s responses that will help me teach them. For example, next to StudentX’s name I might write: says hates English, has ideas but can’t write, likes to read books she chooses herself, not assigned ones, many mechanical errors. My work is clearly laid out for me.

Knowing that information on Day Two is an incredible asset. I make time to meet with each student and address the issues that jump out at me. It’s an open discussion and a friendly, professional way to start the semester. It diffuses problems before they begin. Students are often surprised that a teacher would care to ask these questions and begin to see that this learning process is a two-way street requiring effective teamwork between teacher and student.

  1. Define Your Recipe for Success: I clearly list what I believe is necessary to succeed in my class in the class syllabus. Here is a sample of the ingredients:

-Show up on time and fully prepared to work and think hard.

-Mistakes are not signs of weakness. They’re data to use and an opportunity for learning. Don’t be afraid of them.

-Good students ask for help and for lots of feedback on their work.

-If you try hard, learn from your errors, and persist, you can succeed.

-Consistent effort and effective strategies are the main determinants of success.

-Writing is rewriting.

-Reading for pleasure results in improvement of many skills: vocabulary, comprehension, synthesis. Get addicted to reading.

-Ask questions—of yourself, or your textbook, or others.

-Push beyond the obvious.

-Be invested in your own education.

This “recipe” eliminates ambiguity about my priorities. I want them to be fully engaged and fearless. I make that clear.

5. Office Hours and Scheduled Appointments: During the first two weeks of classes, I make it a point to meet individually with each and every student. It gives us an opportunity to review what is expected and to address any questions or worries. We also map out a game plan of what specific goals the student has for this class and what particular skills need special attention. It’s a way to catch and eliminate problems of the past and move forward as a successful student. Yes, this is time consuming, but it is well worth it; it thwarts problems that most likely would have surfaced later in the semester when there might not be time to handle them.

What I like about this whole “ramping up” process is that it significantly shortens the time we need to get acquainted and hastens the time we get to start working on class work. It also makes the teacher aware of information that either wouldn’t be known or would take valuable weeks to discover.

And I do love the questions they ask me…some of my favorites:

Why do you teach?

Do you always have so much energy?

What is your favorite book, TV show, movie, ice cream?

Are you really going to answer my questions? Really?

P.S. If you have already started classes, it’s never too late to put any of these practices into action.

Classroom Rules For All Ages

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As a teacher I worked with students of all ages from elementary school, through middle and high school and finally at the university level. Without fail, on the first day of class I’d layout and discuss rules that would guide the semester.

Yes, there would be a listing of books to be read, topics to be covered, forms of writing to be explored, and problem solving techniques. Most importantly, however, was the attitude and process that would be in play.

As a child, I hated the “If you don’t know what you did wrong, I’m not going to tell you” approach—it was deadly. I’m a great fan of setting clearly defined expectations at the beginning. Although the wording might have changed over the years as I moved from teaching ten year-olds to twenty somethings, the messages were consistent.

Here’s the list of “rules” I have collected from various sources over almost forty years. I reviewed one by one on the first day of class… and kept the list posted in a highly visible spot all year long:

  1. Mistakes help us learn.
  2. You’re not supposed to understand everything the first time around. Critical thinking, pushing beyond the obvious, and perseverance are what count.
  3. Good students ask for help and for lots of feedback on their work.
  4. Consistent effort and effective strategies are the main determinants of success.
  5. Everyone is capable of high achievement, not just the fastest ones.
  6. If you try hard, learn from your errors, and persist, you can succeed.
  7. Mistakes are not signs of weakness. They’re data to use. They’re an opportunity for learning. Don’t be afraid of them.

I’m noticing that these are “rules” that I seem to use everyday, no matter what the venue. Whether it’s reading a challenging book like Jonathan Safran Foer’s new, unusual Tree of Codes or attempting a complicated sweater design or a sudoku puzzle, the rules help me push beyond chaos and get to something meaningful. Getting rid of the fear of failure and using our own learning experiences as a tool is one of the best lessons we can learn.

Top Ten List for Kids Leaving Home for College

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1. Make real connections with your professors. Get to know them and make sure they know you. Learn ALL you can from them.  You’re paying for an education.

2. Learn when to invite friends into your room and when you need to be alone.

3. Be true to yourself. Don’t be a follower. Use your spine.

4. Bring your quilt/blanket and pillow from home. Sleep in your own bed—alone.

5. Get enough sleep. You’ll need it. People become incredibly stupid when they’re sleep deprived.

6. Avoid illegal substances because you also act stupid when you’re under the influence.

7. Keep up your own private, self-selected reading. It’s something you do just for you, even if it’s only ten minutes a day.

8. Buy 30 pairs of underwear because you won’t do laundry for quite a while. Going commando gets tired very fast.

9. Use a calendar, electronic or the old fashioned paper kind. Write down everything that’s due, schedule time to study each subject.  Then actually use the calendar.

10. Keep in touch with people who love you.

Paging: Summer Reading

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My summer reading has been all over the place thus far. I guess that happens quite naturally when one is retired. I’m not complaining… it’s a delightful ride with lots of unexpected twists and turns. My rule is that I agree to read the first thirty pages of a book, and if it doesn’t make my heart go “pitter patter,” I drop it like a bad boyfriend. That’s a really good rule to live by! I’m not creating a class syllabus, I’m reading for pure, unadulterated pleasure.

My non-fiction reading is focused on the Paleo diet and research on limiting processed foods and complex carbohydrates. It’s only interesting because this food plan seems to work for me. The writing is not notable, but the content is. This batch includes The Blood Sugar Solution (Mark Hyman), Well Fed (Melissa Joulwan), and It Starts with Food (Hartwig) All encourage clean, lean protein, lots of non-starchy veggies, healthy fats and determination. The results are less craziness about food and a very stable blood sugar level. I’ve learned a lot from each of these texts and think I’ve done enough reading about this topic; now I need to rediscover my elliptical. If I could read on the elliptical, I bet I’d exercise more often…maybe it’s time for audio books on my iPod.

Also, in the non-fiction category, there is something completely different for me: a book about the early phases of the war in Iraq. My reading about war is usually focused on newspapers or fiction written about war, until the latest title on my list. My childhood friend, Andrew Lubin, wrote Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq. This book makes me feel like I’m on the battlefield along with Andy’s son and his unit of young Marines. It has given me a newly found appreciation of the training, sacrifice and courage these young men muster in the midst of chaos and the unknown. They rely on their extraordinary training and their strong sense of community with their fellow Marines to endure whatever comes their way. I could not put the book down; it not only gives a bird’s eye view of the frontlines but also loved ones back home coping and trying to figure out what is really happening while watching the news. I also learned, again, how inaccurate and incomplete much of the media account about war is. This book shows the exemplary relationship between father and son—it’s based on love and respect and is so admirable. Go buy this book.

My book group has a tradition of reading classic children’s novels for our July and August meetings. This provided an opportunity to re-read two old favorites: The Wind in the Willows (Grahame) and The Secret Garden (Burnett). Yes, of course, I loved them both—although I am the only member who liked The Wind in the Willows. Those who unknowingly read the abridged version were most unhappy with what was omitted. I was absorbed in the delightful camaraderie as well as observing how important decisions are made within this crew of characters. When to stay and when to go are two crucial life issues dealt with quite nicely. Oh, how I wanted to find a kid to read it to or to just read it aloud and hear the words. I enjoyed The Wind in the Willows and am thinking of moles, water rats, badgers and frogs differently than before I picked up this text. All good stuff! Next month it’s on to The Secret Garden.

This brings me back to the children’s books that we read our daughters years ago. I recently stumbled upon several huge boxes of their favorite titles that were neatly packed away in the attic. When I mentioned the book stash to the girls, they made it clear that these books need to be moved to the cape house and saved forever, maybe longer. Of course, I sat down and read through several while I was supposed to be packing. I got lost in these fun kids books and my memories: Good Night Moon. A Fly Went By, Angelina Ballerina, Where the Wild Things Are, anything by Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky, and Gregory The Terrible Eater. That’s just a few of the early books; the chapter books will have to wait for another day or the packing will never get done.

Top on my list of self-selected reading is an advanced copy of In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin. The book will be published this October, and I really appreciate getting a galley copy. Helprin’s writing mesmerizes me and keeps me in his world for years. I first read Winter’s Tale years ago and still think about his main character, Peter Lake, and wonder what he’s doing now that the book is finished. Oh, wait, he’s a fictional character. Helprin’s characters live forever in my head, and I love it. I’m about 100 pages into this book and am already fretting that the end will come too soon… but the message is clear…this is another winner and you should read it.

My other choices in fiction are patiently waiting on the shelf for me. They include Tree of Codes (Foer), Great House (Krauss), and Swamplandia (Russell) Since we got rid of the television, there’s even more time for reading and thinking. Wish we did it sooner.

Several books about the state of college education are in my pile as well. At one point, I thought I’d write my own book about teaching college to this generation of students and what specific demands and issues are in play. Who knows if I’ll write the book, but I’m looking forward to seeing what other authors have to say and how they say it. These titles are Academically Adrift (Arum/Reksa), We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education (Keeling/Hersh) and Higher Education? (Hacker/Dreifus).

No, I won’t be reading Shades of Grey, not because I’m Puritanical, but because time is short and there are so many well written, creative, enlightening books waiting for me.

What are you reading now? Leave a comment!

Good, Better, Best…

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Good, better, best

Never let it rest

Until the good is better,

And better, best

That’s one of the golden rules I was taught to obey. It is a double-edged sword: one that brings victory and success…and also causes various degrees of self-inflicted wounds.

The motivation to improve oneself and follow a serious work ethic is laudatory on many levels. It encourages personal growth, intellectual curiosity and a commitment to one’s passion. This means pushing beyond what is easy and what is obvious. The downside is that it can lead to self-absorption, compulsions, and a lack of balance in life. It reminds me of Lily Tomlin’s observation that if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. That’s probably not very fair. There are lots of nice mice in that race, trying to find who moved the cheese. I really don’t want to label all of the winners as rats.

This dilemma comes into play when thinking about the proverbial American Dream. Be ALL that you can be. Success is there if you work hard and work smart. This is the land of opportunity. Yet, today, so many successful business people are tarred and feathered because of their success. While I was growing up, it was the lazy, mediocre, non-passionate ones that were criticized. We were encouraged to work hard and get on the “Honor Roll” and strive to place high in class ranking. Today, some schools no longer have honor rolls, class rank, valedictorians or achievement awards. Everybody is told they’re special, no distinctions are made for accomplishment or achievement. Has the pendulum swung too far? If everyone is special, then “special” is the new average. Is that what we want –mediocrity that thinks it’s great? As a teacher, I believe that all students are capable of improving, and should get their just reward. But just showing up shouldn’t result in a “Gentleman’s A”—that is a disservice to all.

The downside of the “good, better, best” mentality is not knowing when a task deserves to be done using 75% of one’s capacity, instead of 150% in overkill. When is the drive to do more and to do better creating a terrific quality of life or destroying it? Because of my being the first child, surviving Catholic school and always being fully energized to do my best, I’m probably not the best person to ask for advice on this question. It comes naturally to me to work at 300% and deliver more than expected. It’s not always a healthy or wise process—there’s always a struggle for balance. I discovered it is easier to learn to tamp it down versus ramping it up… but that’s probably my Type A personality peaking or peeking through.

I just finished reading The Art Of Fielding by Chad Harbach and the main character deals with having and then losing an award winning performance record on the baseball field. He had absolutely no fielding errors… and then he made mistakes and fell apart. His demand for perfection ruined his possibilities. He couldn’t cope with the errors and slipped into despair. Other characters in book likewise deal with straining to be perfect, losing their bearings, and then trying to find a way to re-construct a more meaningful life. Perfection is clearly the enemy in this book. Being perfect somehow means lacking the skills to cope with failure. I always used to tell my students that I learned far more from my failures than from my successes. I believe that to be true, not because it takes the sting and stink out of losing, but because it teaches me something.

So yes, there’s merit in “good, better, best”, but I think I’d like to add a few more lines:

Good, better, best

Never let it rest

Until the good is better,

And better, best

And when you fall

Clean up the mess

Learn a lesson

Self-taught is best.

Life After Teaching…

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I’ve taught every grade from kindergarten to university. It was never “just a job”—it actually was a way of life. Both the content and pedagogy were always churning and fermenting in my brain. I was always on the hunt for something fabulous/interesting/curious/confusing to bring up in class. It was a most delightful, challenging mind game that always kept me busy, growing, and entertained. It’s true, that for me, being a teacher meant being a perpetual learner; that was many of the rewards granted daily.

And, of course, there are the students! Every semester I’d meet and greet new members of the Tetreault gang; many would be in the flock forever. Together we overcame challenges: me finding a way to reach them and them working hard to meet our goals. I do miss the look on a student’s face when s/he “gets it”. That’s the moment when the value of brainstorming is realized, or perhaps the recognition of an author’s strategy in writing an essay or maybe it’s a connection to the student’s life. Those “eye-openers” made my heart sing.

When I first started teaching, I remember a high school student who just finished reading The Great Gatsby, ask me, “I want more of this. Did this guy, Fitzgerald, write anything else?” Ahhhh, the beginning of a beautiful friendship! Just a few weeks ago I got an e-mail from a former high school student of mine from ten years ago. He wrote to celebrate that he just got his first professional journal article published, and he thanked me. I blubbered! Teaching is the gift that keeps on giving.

I regularly get e-mails or phone calls from former students just checking in. They let me know what they’re doing, reading or thinking about, and they want to know what I’m up to. Grad school recommendation forms and job references are the norm. There’s always a request for some book suggestions— especially from kids that previously didn’t consider themselves readers. They all are quick to share their latest written treasure or flop. I’m grateful that this aspect of teaching continues, because it really is a joy.

On my one-year anniversary away from the classroom, I can say that life does go on. I miss the intellectual stimulation of classes, but have replaced that with lots of eclectic reading, long conversations with David, and writing this blog. I’m also  always seeking other venues that provide access to new ideas and dialogue. There are lots of opportunities to do this at brick and mortar sites as well as on line. My mind is still going a mile a minute.

For the first several months of retirement, I did miss the rhythm and drumbeat of the semester. First day excitement; the “getting to know you” honeymoon period, five critical essays staggered throughout the semester, and the closure at year’s end. At 8:30 am I’d wonder what my Expository Writing class was up to— and during the first week of May I did a double take about the urgency of getting grades done and submitted on time. But that pace is being replaced by my own schedule now. I get up a wee bit later than when I was teaching and have a short list of tasks I want to accomplish. I’m the starter and the pace car and the racecar. It’s all good—the memories and the new life.

“Eat It, Mills.”

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At the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner, Jimmy Kimmel made a remark that resonated amongst many. It was not about the President—not about politics—but about his tenth grade history teacher who told Kimmel that “he’d never amount to anything if he didn’t stop screwing around.” Apparently Kimmel was not a cookie cutter, goodie two shoes student; he pushed boundaries, and his teacher, Mr. Mills, responded with the big guns— the “you’re going to be a loser” label. It seems like Kimmel was a challenging student, and his teacher failed to meet the challenge.

In my years of teaching, I have heard many versions of this story told by far too many students whose dreams were dashed by a thoughtless teacher. I taught writing, reading and literature from grade six through college. These students had been told that they would never be a good writer or reader, or they always got the “wrong” meaning from literature. I am a firm believer in making things happen. Everybody can learn to do these skills, but they don’t all learn it the same way. One size does not fit all in the classroom. A teacher who tells a student that he will never amount to anything is WRONG. The teacher’s responsibility is to encourage growth, not to thwart it.

I still don’t understand how any adult could find it reasonable or responsible to tell a kid that he is hopeless. It must be pathetic egotism or incredibly weak teaching skills. I find that it is possible to reach these students who had been told that they don’t conform and won’t succeed. The first step is to try to eradicate the damage done by the demeaning teacher; the second is to find a strategy to enable the student to tackle these tasks and appreciate the work that goes into success. The last part is practice and conference repeatedly until the goal is accomplished. It’s hard work for both the teacher and student, but it’s effective and always amounts to something.

When I taught eighth grade in an affluent Boston suburb, achievement awards were given at a year-end assembly. Each English teacher was asked to submit the names of the students in his/her class that deserved the writing awards. I had two students who finally found their voices as writers after being told they were mediocre. I submitted their names only to be told by the department head that she taught them earlier, and they weren’t good writers. She was WRONG when she failed to teach them, and she was wrong to deny them the recognition they deserved by succeeding in spite of her failings. I had to go to the principal and fight for these two kids. I won that battle. The department head recommended that I not be rehired; I left for a better job, and she is now on the School Committee. She ran unopposed. Scary thought.

As a professor at a local university, I was overwhelmed by the number of students who defined themselves as non-writers, not good readers, and horrible at analyzing literature. These students got the negative label in middle or high school; it stuck and significantly limited how they thought about themselves. I made it clear immediately that I never wanted to hear those words again. Stop the negative talk, and let’s start working on the problems. The process is time intensive and worth every second. It’s what good teachers do.

Standards need to be met, skills need to be learned, and there are multiple options. One person’s “screwing around” is another person’s creative process. Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Robin Williams, and John Lennon are non-traditional successes. They did what we should be encouraging all students to do: think critically, use imagination, question authority, push beyond expectations, and push back those who want to suppress, depress or oppress.  We want creative, individual thinkers, not compliant, obedient puppets. It’s the teacher’s role to capture the student’s energy, help him harness it and sometimes redirect it. Redirect, not rebuke. Teach, not judge and label.

Mr. Mill’s jab caused a deep wound with significant scarring. So much damage that this successful entertainer needed to clear the air in public, on TV, in front of the President of the United States. How’s that for vindication! Kimmel remained feisty, smart, and strong. He didn’t succumb to belittling. He gives students a battle cry and hope.

I’ve been in a similar, but non-academic, situation to Kimmel’s. In the 25 year hiatus between my teaching jobs, I was a commercial real estate consultant.  When I was introduced to the guru of industry, he commented: “Diane, you’ll never make it in this business. You’re not blond. You’re not thin.” Thank God I had the strength to reply, “You won’t make it in long term because you’re short, bald, and have really bad people skills”. I fought fire with fire and didn’t get burned. I not only survived in this cutthroat industry, but also thrived for more than 25 years before I returned to teaching. He crashed and burned.

Like Kimmel, it’s the passionate ones who take calculated risks, color outside the lines, and dare to be different that achieve success. Eat that, Mr. Mills and your minions.